Boring Invincible Protagonists

When working on this post, figuring out how to explain the problem wasn’t the hard part. It was coming up with supporting examples. Just by reading the title, you probably already know what I’m talking about. If the hero never looks like they might lose, the story loses interest. Simple enough to grasp, but when I try to demonstrate it, most examples that come to mind actually slip away from this problem. This itself demonstrates the problem. Stories that truly have heroes who can’t fail tend to be not only boring, but so boring they don’t even come to mind as bad movies. They simply fall away into utter blandness.

For example, lets say I decided to use an action film for my example. That should be easy, because the heroes of those movies are often unrealistically strong and have superhuman endurance, so they can beat up 300 mooks on their way to the bad guy’s lair. I know I’ve seen plenty of movies where I just went “yeah, the hero will win because they have invisible protagonist shields and all the bad guy bullets will miss.” I’ve seen so many that none are coming to mind.

But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s as enlightening to talk about ways that this problem has been avoided. For example, many action films keep the tension up by having the real problem be something the hero can’t just solve with action. There’s a conspiracy they have to unravel (Bourne Identity) or better yet, a moral dilemma they have to resolve (Kiss of the Dragon). Or best of all, have the hero actually lose frequently, despite all their skills. Indiana Jones almost never gets his artifacts into the museum. He walks away with moral victories at best. That doesn’t hurt his films; it makes them incredibly successful.

Others get around the problem by virtue of the sheer odds they stack against the protagonist. One of my favorite examples of this is 1776. In this case, there is a different kind of invincibility. The protagonists, John Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, have to convince the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. We all know the outcome. I’m not living a colony of the UK. Still, I got worried for the protagonists, because the writers established so many obstacles that the protagonists had to get past.

However, I did eventually come up with a good example for this one. It’s from a TV show that initially avoided this problem, and gained some middling popularity, before hitting a decline point. Furthermore, it demonstrates how this problem can sneak up on a writer who makes the mistake of thinking that boring invincibility is just about making a character externally powerful. The show is White Collar, and the character is Peter Burke.

For those who haven’t seen it, that was a show that ran on USA from 2009 to 2014. It was about an FBI agent, Peter Burke, in the white collar division and his arch-nemesis-turned-ally, Neal Caffrey. If you guessed from their roles which one was at the greatest risk of being dangerously invincible, you would probably guess Neal, the con artist. Neal has the good looks, the charm, the ability to get out of every single scrape. He was conveniently an expert in every type of forgery that exists. He was even a perfect shot, despite hating guns and avoiding weapons of all kinds whenever he could. You could easily accuse him of being unrealistic, but the truth was he was never boring, because the show was always hitting him with problems that seemed beyond his ability to handle.

For example, he quickly became attached to his new life as an FBI consultant, but he always felt a pull back to the thrill of his old life. The conflict between these two wasn’t something he could resolve with any of his abilities. His attempt to maintain his new life while keeping a hand in his old often came back to hit him, hard. His charm could let him pick up women with ease; he wasn’t so great at keeping them, and he lost three different women who he really loved. And finally, while his skills were improbable, they were always used to take down a villain so clever and dangerous, and on jobs where so much went wrong, it never felt like success was certain. It felt more like the writers were giving him just enough to maybe not get completely crushed.

In contrast, while Peter started out as an effective, more mundane foil to Neal, as the show went on his flaws faded. The problem started with him always being right. Initially Neal knew how to play around the rules while Peter was too bound to them. He sometimes needed Neal to lighten things up, or find a loophole when playing by the rules got in the way. Later he became fully willing to take advantage of Neal when he thought it was appropriate, but still invested in being Neal’s conscience. This sounded like a good idea, but in practice Peter kept on being right, to the point of omniscience. Even when he shouldn’t have enough information to know, he knew when Neal was being honest, he knew when to be suspicious, he knew when a plan would turn out well and when it would capsize. The show always vindicated him.

Furthermore, while Neal had real dilemmas and lost things, Peter’s threats never seemed that serious. If he was in danger, Neal would save him. If his wife was in danger, Neal would save her. If his career was in danger… you get the picture. He was never in trouble for anything more than the most token amounts of time. As a result, he went from a decent co-protagonist to a tolerable foil to an insufferable blight on the Neal Caffrey Show.

That’s the most important thing to remember about invincible protagonists. It’s not really a character problem. It’s a story problem. You can always come up with a way to make them suffer, lose, or at least have to work damn hard for their success. If they get boring, it’s not because they are overpowered, but because the author is pulling punches.

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